The concept of employee engagement has been endlessly debated and recalibrated. But one thing remains certain: in the face of tumultuous change to the way we work, it’s never been more important to understand why we work.
Ahead of the CIPD Employee Engagement Conference and Workshop on 24-25 January, Cathy Brown, executive director of Engage for Success – the body that has done more to define and promote the concept of engagement than any other – ponders what the future holds.
How has your understanding of what engagement means changed over the years?
We do not have one solid definition of engagement; we welcome the various definitions and thoughts around its implications. There are, however, really clear characteristics that exist in most organisations and within most employees around what engagement means to them. I, for example, work in a place that doesn’t quibble that I dye my hair a different colour every month, and that engages me.
Engagement definitely includes elements such as employees feeling able to bring their ‘whole self’ to work, a bond of trust between employer and employee, and a connection to wellbeing. We increasingly see engagement perceived as treating people as human beings rather than resources.
Measuring engagement should be such a no-brainer for employers by now, so it’s deeply frustrating to have to keep outlining its business case. There’s a huge number of organisations that just haven’t grasped what engagement is yet – they just don’t ‘get’ it.
Does using the term ‘engagement’ itself matter, if employers are doing the right thing?
No, but what does matter is that employers understand what they are measuring. If you’re not asking the right questions, it’s unlikely that you’ll be linking the aspects surrounding engagement to any increases or decreases you see. You need to be clear about what engagement means to your organisation and employees so you can be clear on how to measure it.
Questions employers ask their staff in engagement surveys – for example, about how they’re feeling – have got to be in human language. No one comes into work in the morning saying how engaged they feel.
Does technology help or hinder engagement?
Technology can add a huge amount of value to organisations, but it is neutral and its impact is tailored by what organisations do with it. For example, at Engage for Success, we use internal social media quite a lot and it works for us. We always put thought into how we use it, and it does not replace face-to-face interactions – it enhances them.
It is vital that employers never assume an app or social networking site will do the job of bringing their workforce together for them; you have to put the work in to create a community around it. Employers should also not control technology too fiercely. Let employees lead the way to show how they want to use it, which takes a good deal of trust.
What does the future hold for engagement?
Engagement should be a primary focus as we embrace the uncertainty Brexit and technology may bring. First, Brexit itself is not the issue, it’s employers’ reaction to it. It’s no different to the crash of 2008 in the sense that it needs a solid response, and that response will cause either great engagement or an engagement deficit. Many business are currently afraid to admit to their employees that they are unsure what will happen.
In terms of technology, the pace of change is now outstripping our ability to adapt to it, which makes people feel nervous. So organisations need to grasp that technology will continue to change and we’ll be learning all our lives from now on.
The CIPD Employee Engagement Conference and Workshop is taking place on 24-25 January 2018 in Marble Arch, London. Find out more information about conference topics, speakers and how to get tickets here